Directed by Takashi Milke
Written by Daisuke Tengan
Based on a screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami
If you’ve seen any of Takashi Miike’s thousand-or-so films, you know that his new samurai flick, 13 Assassins, isn’t like the others. But in the tradition of his best movies, Miike reveals his subversive intentions sparingly and methodically before succumbing to his ultra-violent inclinations.
Assassins opens on a distressing shot of a man committing harakiri–with the noise of the cut pulled way, disgustingly, up in the mix–in protest of the Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), brother of the Shogun, rapist, murderer, and general ne’er-do-well. Though feudal Japan has enjoyed years of peace, Naritsugu is allowed free reign to tie up groups of Japanese civilians and shoot arrows at them in his courtyard. Outraged by his indiscriminate violence, and wary that Naritsugu may soon attain actual power, old-timer samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) takes on the mission of assassinating him. And, at great pains given the rarity of the samurai in peaceful times, Shinzaemon assembles a team of eleven others, even enlisting his gambling, philandering nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada).
For those who love samurai movies, the first half of this film will be candy. There are long, restrained conversations between stoic robed men about honor, infrequently peppered with gruesome, terrifying images that reminds you that you’re watching Miike. For those largely uninitiated into the samurai mythology, like this reviewer, this stretch of the film can be somewhat plodding. But there are genuinely funny moments, and as the team becomes more concrete, their interplay becomes more enjoyable. The group truly solidifies only after they’ve begun their mission and discover a miscreant hunter in the woods who has a way with a sling and no time for codes or dour formality. But he joins on, this 13th assassin, because he’s intrigued by the promise of massive samurai-on-samurai violence.
Then comes the last act–an enormous, elaborately choreographed, seemingly endless bloodbath, and the film stops being anything but riveting. After discovering Naritsugu’s route, the assassins take on the task of fortifying a town in his path and standing their ground against what they estimate to be a 70 samurai cavalcade. They underestimate, but carry on in what ends up being Miike’s gruesome statement of purpose. Alternating between classically absurd samurai violence and hauntingly realistic pain and suffering, Miike suggests the ridiculousness of codifying murder, or massacre as it may be.
At once in love with violence and with no empathetic understanding of what it means, Lord Naritsugu is the perfect enemy for samurai lead, Shinzaemon, who has continued to exist and train by samurai code without ever practicing violence. But the most intriguing and memorable character here is the hunter–very much the Shakespearean fool archetype and a stand-in for Miike himself–a skilled fighter who likely believes that claiming righteousness is the only crime that merits a death-sentence. He exists in the film merely to contradict the system, but it is a system, and a genre, that benefits from that outside perspective.
There is a moment, after the violence has gotten underway, when Naritsugu delightfully suggests that once he is in charge, he will bring back the “Age of Violence.” He is reacting to the unchecked battle which we, the audience, had too been gleefully enjoying. And in this way Miike underscores his intention to implicate the viewer in the presented blood and gore. Because to Miike it seems neither about fantastical amusement nor righteous acts of revenge: bloodshed is bloodshed. 13 Assassins isn’t presenting a new or groundbreaking argument, and it can definitely be heavy handed at times. But while there’s nothing unpredictable about the film’s plot aside from its scope, Miike uses his template masterfully and insists on a postmodern detachment.